Matt Margolis and Mark Noonan will be familiar to many readers of this blog. Matt is the founder of the conservative website Blogs For Victory (formerly Blogs For Bush), while Mark has been its primary editorial voice for many years. They wrote their first book, Caucus of Corruption: The Truth about the New Democratic Majority in 2007, chronicling “the corruption endemic to the Democratic Party.” Their most recent book is a 150 Reasons Why Barack Obama Is the Worst President In History, published in 2013.
Margolis and Noonan have just announced the pending publication of an update to 150 Reasons, titled The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. In light of that, now would be a good time to dust off my review of 150 Reasons, which was intended for the old allpolyticsnow website before cluster, my conservative colleague, had a temper tantrum and unilaterally pulled the plug on it. Fortunately, I saved a draft of my review before he melted down.
Like its title suggests, 150 Reasons is a compendium of President Obama’s failings as viewed by Margolis and Noonan, backed by 511 footnotes to sources, the listing of which consumes 55 of the 274 pages. In the introduction, the authors state, “The goal of this book is make sure the truth about Obama’s record is not forgotten, so that history can make an honest, informed assessment of the Obama presidency… After Obama was reelected, we decided it was time to compile everything about Obama’s record that the media and academia chose to ignore (or cover up) so that the people could have all the facts in one place.”
Unfortunately, 150 Reasons is little more than a compendium, and as such, provides only a superficial survey of conservative criticisms of President Obama, real or imagined. The brevity of the book — most reasons are described in less than a page, some in just a single paragraph — means that there is virtually no analysis. Raw facts, such as the federal deficit for a given fiscal year, are presented with little or no context. The authors might argue that writing at length about each of their 150 reasons would have resulted in an impossibly unwieldy book, and that is true. But they would have been better served by emphasizing the quality of their arguments rather than the quantity of their reasons.
More problematic is the authors’ inherent biases, which lead them to uncritical and simplistic interpretations of events that unfailingly portray President Obama in the worst light, no matter how tenuous the connection, and at the exclusion of any other possibility. Allegations by conservative sources are treated as indisputable facts. Other points of view go unacknowledged. There is no consideration of the challenging circumstances confronting President Obama when he took office, such as the collapsing economy or the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The first reason in the book is titled Stimulus Failure. Of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Margolis and Noonan write, “All we got for our huge investment was a mountain of new debt, a long list of failed ‘green energy’ companies, an infrastructure that remains insufficient, and a ‘recovery’ adding fewer jobs than needed to keep up with population growth. To say Obama’s stimulus failed to deliver is a huge understatement.”
When President Obama took office in 2009, the economy was in free fall; something needed to be done. Yet, the authors fail to suggest any options that the president should have been taken. They fail to draw parallels to how other presidents handled similar circumstances, and they fail to acknowledge that the majority of economists at the time agreed–and still agree–that a stimulus was not only needed, but should have been larger than it actually was.
The authors also fail to consider the argument that President Obama’s response to the crisis may have done some good. A serious work on the subject could reasonably be expected to deal with the book The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era by Michael Grunwald, which is widely considered to be the most thorough book written thus far about the stimulus. Instead, Margolis and Noonan are content merely to recite the debt figures as sufficient analysis to make their point. On top of that, the authors actually praise President Bush’s 2008 stimulus (in reason 126) as a “bipartisan success” even though the economy collapsed just months later.
When the authors do attempt some analysis, their biases always lead them to interpretations most favorable to their thesis, with no acknowledgement of other possibilities or facts that might get in their way. An example is reason 20: Redefining Poverty, in which Margolis and Noonan charge that President Obama “changed the definition of poverty to ensure that no matter how rich we, as a people, become there will always be people in poverty needing a host of government services to tend to their needs.” Per the single footnote, their reasoning is entirely based on an hyperbolic opinion piece from the conservative website The Daily Caller.
It’s true that the federal government developed a Supplemental Poverty Measure, but it wasn’t intended to replace the official poverty measure, nor has it. According to the Census Bureau, “The new supplemental measure would be published initially in the fall of 2011 at the same time and detail as the 2010 income and poverty statistics that contain the official poverty measure, and annually thereafter” (emphasis added). Furthermore, as the Census Bureau documents, this is a process that has been going on since 1990, when Congress appropriated funds for “an independent scientific study of the concepts, measurement methods, and information needs for a poverty measure.” Those findings, reported by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995, proposed a relative poverty threshold which lead to the first supplemental poverty measures in 1999 and 2001. This wasn’t something that President Obama invented after inauguration day. One wishes that Margolis and Noonan would have conducted their research beyond a single opinion piece in The Daily Caller, but they don’t because doing so might have lead them to material that contradicts their pre-determined premise.
Anything that may be deemed a positive for President Obama is instead cast as a negative. In the book’s only acknowledgement that Obama ended the Iraq War (in reason 82: Higher Casualty Rate in Afghanistan), the authors simply complain, “on several occasions, he actually sent more troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and even to Turkey and Libya. While our troops were eventually pulled out of Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has not improved, and arguably has gotten worse.” Even the killing of Osama bin Ladin (reason 79) is turned into a negative. Ending America’s use of torture is not acknowledged at all. (The word “torture” only appears once in the main text, while describing a 14-year-old Christian girl who was tortured in Pakistan — a fate that the authors blame on Obama, of course, in reason 65: Ignoring Christian Oppression.)
Margolis and Noonan are schizophrenic when it comes to government spending. On the one hand, they blame President Obama entirely for increasing government spending and deficits (reason 19: Largest Deficits in History, reason 21: More Debt Than All Past Presidents… Combined). But they also blame him for cutting government expenditures (reasons 31: Skyrocketing College Costs, 41: Cutting Funding to Fight AIDS, 70: Cutting Military Benefits, and 72: Cutting Weapons Programs). And of course, they fail to acknowledge any conditions President Obama inherited that may have contributed to those deficits. (In their minds, doing so would be reason 121: Blaming Bush and Congress.)
The authors seem challenged to come up with 150 reasons. Some show up more than once, such as Obama’s Enemies List, which is the title of both reasons 106 and 108. A lack of transparency is the topic three times (reasons 30: Transparency Failure, 52: Lack of Health Care Transparency, and 116: The Not-So-Transparent Administration). In addition to the previously mentioned reasons 1, 19 and 21, Margolis and Noonan take yet another swing at spending in reason 149: The Four Trillion Dollar Man.
President Obama is blamed for events for which he had minimal control over, such as reason 3: Lower Wages For American Workers. The authors blame him for the Boston Marathon bombing (reason 150), writing, “what we do know at this time suggests that the Obama Administration could have prevented the tragedy that occurred on April 15, 2013.” Obama is assigned the entire blame for Partisanship in Congress (reason 126), even though it is a well-established fact that Republican Congressional leaders conspired to opposed every Obama initiative before he was even inaugurated.
Then we get into the truly silly reasons, like 37: Narcissist in Chief, in which President Obama supposedly honors the memory of American heroes with photos of himself. Or reason 43: Superstorm Sandy Photo Op, in which the authors claim that Obama’s response to the disaster amounted to little more than a “cool photo of himself with Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.” No doubt President Obama’s failure to properly salute every time he disembarks from Air Force One will make it into the new book. The authors often lapse into hyperbole, as in reason 135: The End Of Free Speech. (It must be a wonder to them that their book was allowed to be published at all.)
In reason 121: Blaming Bush And Congress, the authors complain, “Obama rarely took responsibility for his failures, but often took sole credit for accomplishments he should not have, like healing one of the victims of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado who had been shot in the head.” That is their over-the-top interpretation of something President Obama said during the second 2012 presidential debate:
QUESTION: President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?
OBAMA: We’re a nation that believes in the Second Amendment, and I believe in the Second Amendment. We’ve got a long tradition of hunting and sportsmen and people who want to make sure they can protect themselves.
But there have been too many instances during the course of my presidency, where I’ve had to comfort families who have lost somebody. Most recently out in Aurora. You know, just a couple of weeks ago, actually, probably about a month, I saw a mother, who I had met at the bedside of her son, who had been shot in that theater.
And her son had been shot through the head. And we spent some time, and we said a prayer and, remarkably, about two months later, this young man and his mom showed up, and he looked unbelievable, good as new.
But there were a lot of families who didn’t have that good fortune and whose sons or daughters or husbands didn’t survive.
Regarding the 511 footnotes, I did not attempt a thorough review of them all, taking at face value their veracity. But I was disappointed when the very first footnote I did attempt to verify didn’t pertain to the criticism raised by the authors. I refer to reason 24: Taxpayer Dollars For Hired Trolls, which consists of a single paragraph containing this allegation:
In 2009, it was revealed that Obama’s Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, was hiring bloggers to participate in a secret propaganda campaign by anonymously posting comments on newspaper websites with stories critical of Obama, Holder, and the Justice Department.
The lone footnote backing up this assertion is:
Ronn Torossian, “Millions Paid to Liberal Public Relations Firms,” Frontpage Magazine, 10/30/2012, (http://frontpagemag.com/2012/ronn-torossian/millions-paid-to-liberal-public-relations-firms/)
The article cited doesn’t refer to Eric Holder at all, nor does it talk about a secret propaganda campaign perpetrated by the Justice Department. Rather, it complains about “Liberal PR firms” making money “without oversight.” I’m not saying that Margolis and Noonan’s footnotes are fraudulent and I trust this is an innocent error. But even granting that, reason 24 is an example of how the authors uncritically accept “reporting” on conservatives websites as fact.
A little Internet searching reveals that in 2009 there was indeed chatter among conservatives about a so-called DOJ “Blog Squad.” These reports all lead back to a website called the Muffled Oar. It still exists, but the page that detailed the charges no longer does. So what we’re left with is an unsubstantiated rumor that was repeated by the conservative blogosphere (and denied by the Justice Department, though you wouldn’t know it by reading 150 Reasons). This, evidently, is enough for Margolis and Noonan to include it in their book as one of those facts the media doesn’t want the public to know about, complete with the authoritative stamp of an erroneous footnote. In short, one conservative blog makes unsubstantiated claims that are repeated by other conservatives until it becomes accepted fact. That’s not the stuff of a credible book.
Theses criticisms aside, ultimately the authors miss an opportunity for a truly interesting book by failing to compare the Obama administration to other presidencies — something you might expect from a book that claims he is the worst of all time. Rather, the authors simply assert that he is the worst, believing that their list makes it self-evident. Given that many historians believe that Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was among the worst presidents ever, the authors might have directly compared their presidencies. Instead, we get veiled comparisons that amount to quibbling, such as defending Bush’s many trips to his ranch in Crawford, Texas while criticizing Obama’s vacations in reason 22: Taxpayer-Funded Vacations. (For the record, according to the acknowledged authority on such matters, CBS’ Mark Knoller, as of August 2013 President Obama has taken 14 vacations totaling all or part of 92 days. At the same time in his presidency, George Bush had made 57 trips to his ranch or his parents’ compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, amounting to more than a year’s worth of days.)
In summary, the authors fall victim to cliches that have dominated conservative media since Obama was elected, and readers who follow politics closely will easily recognize that. The result, then, is a book that may satisfy those who seek uncritical reinforcement of their strongly-held anti-Obama positions, but others looking for informed opinion and analysis will find little of value. (And this is reflected in the Amazon reviews, which consist only of one stars or five stars.)
Having said all that, the Amazon preview is more than enough for anyone to decide whether to buy 150 Reasons Why Barack Obama Is The Worst President In History.